Israel can already sum up the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games as one of the more successful ones, if not the most successful, in its history. Even before gymnast Linoy Ashram’s gold, it was gymnast Artem Dolgopyat – even though he is not Jewish – who stood in the center of the podium, putting Israel onstage in global sports.
Israel can take pride in an impressive sporting achievement, and the local Olympic Committee will have good reason to request greater budgets and facilities. Dolgopyat will certainly enjoy some benefits, and may even be allowed to marry in Israel.
However, if one looks at the Israeli delegation to the Games, one thing stands out. Its members come from all branches of Israeli society – native-born, veteran and new immigrants, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews – but Israel’s Arab citizens still have no place among their country’s Olympic delegation that represents the state at the world’s most important sporting event.
Israel’s blind defenders will say that Arabs don’t meet the criteria for joining the delegation. Indeed, no one is asking for the inclusion of Arabs just because they are Arabs. On the contrary, we first want them to be excellent athletes. But for someone to reach the level required to compete in the Olympics, they must overcome many challenges.
No Arab community has the infrastructure for any sport that could provide local athletes the basis they need to progress to an international level. If an Arab athlete wishes to reach this standard, he or she must move to a Jewish community and depend on their family’s financial support, since there is no sponsor or organization that would support them. Many talented athletes in Arab communities have given up their dreams due to the costs involved.
In many countries around the world it is the members of disadvantaged groups, the descendants of immigrants or minorities, who excel at sports. They often see sport as a way of overcoming racism and discrimination and of breaking social and economic barriers. The Arabs in Israel are not migrants, but their loyalty and citizenship are often viewed with suspicion. This is why an Arab athlete can sometimes excel on a soccer team, but the Olympics, the Mount Olympus of sports, is closed to them.
It’s also worth remembering that if an Arab citizen were to join the delegation and win a medal, they would have to decide whether they could receive it against the backdrop of a flag and anthem that represent only the majority of this country, rather than all its citizens.
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Some people would say that if an Arab can be the anchor of a coalition or the head of a hospital, they can also run or swim under an Israeli flag. One can only wish for a public discourse that dealt with such a question. But this is only a theoretical issue; in practice, there is no Arab in the Olympic delegation.
Meanwhile, Arab citizens are only watching the Games on television, and will apparently continue to do so for many more years. Long before achieving the Olympic dream, they would like to gain what would be theirs by unquestioned right in a fair-minded country – an apartment, economic security, personal security.